Power stations around the world use uranium as fuel, and mining uranium has become a $1.2 billion export from Canada. But Canadian companies looking to launch uranium-mining projects face many challenges — most notably, the potential for contamination of soil and groundwater caused by the mining process’s chemical waste elements (called waste rock and tailings), which can include harmful arsenic, nickel and cobalt by-products.
Proactive bioremediation planning and solutions for these waste materials are required before any mining project can begin, but developing and implementing those processes is often cost-prohibitive.
Mitacs-funded research is helping drive a potential game-changing problem-solving collaboration between Orano Canada, one the nation’s largest uranium producers, and the University of Saskatchewan: using bacteria to safely — and completely — contain arsenic in the water surrounding waste rock.
The study is jointly spearheaded by postdoctoral fellow Ali Motalebi (PhD, PEng) and Kerry McPhedran (PhD, PEng, Assistant Professor and principal investigator of the project) — both of the university’s Civil, Geological and Environmental Engineering department — in collaboration with Orano Geo-Environmental Scientist Kebbi Hughes, PhD.
We’re optimistic it can advance environmentally sustainable mining and protect the Saskatchewan environment over the long term.— Kebbi Hughes, PhD, Geo-Environmental Scientist at Orano Canada
Although the team is currently researching the bioremediation of arsenic, the process has the potential to be modified to target other heavy metals and harmful elements and could be applied across the mining industry globally. In addition to fostering mutually beneficial long-term collaborations between the stakeholders, this research could lead to an environmentally friendly, cost-effective bioremediation process that would allow more Canadian businesses to access uranium deposits, create jobs and strengthen the Saskatchewan economy.